On the Road
One Saturday afternoon last summer, the forecast for rain, I set out on a dérive. Or not quite a dérive, because I knew where I was going, or aiming to go: to the dump, more than 70 blocks away across Vancouver, while reading Michèle Bernstein's The Night in Clodagh Kinsella’s new translation. Bernstein’s intention fifty years ago was to create a ‘fake popular novel’ that would both form a ‘critique of the novel itself’ and alleviate her and Guy Debord’s financial woes. The narrator of La Nuit, Geneviève, is in a ménage-à-trois with Gilles and Carole. The novel describes a walk through Paris over the course of a night.
I had been struggling to read it for the past ten days, getting no further than page 51. Bernstein’s predictive tense was driving me round the bend. You will have walked to the dump which will have been very far away and you will have read the rest of this book, I could hear Geneviève telling me.
First up, back alley, a fella collecting cans, says he's seen better days. ‘Oh good,’ I say. That came out wrong. On the corner, a new bike shop/café has opened. It's thriving! A table of coffee drinkers. ‘That's my family,’ the owner says. I wave Bernstein at them and say I am reading and walking all the way to the dump. I am told the cycle path goes all the way there. Later I will discover it doesn’t. For now, elated.
Another bike man tells me I owe him $12 for repairing a flat tyre. I tell him he has the wrong woman. ‘Are you sure?’ A woman sitting nearby laughs. I miss the traffic light. I have read barely 15 words of Bernstein.
From 16th to 20th Ave I am doing so well I read aloud. Reading and walking is glorious. Best idea ever. The whole planet should do this. By 22nd Ave however, heat. A hill. Sweat and panting misery. Push on. Can’t interrupt my reading. By 24th Ave – no choice. Exactly like Carol on the page I am hot from my various exertions. Except no chair to fling attire on. Lay bag on stone steps of posh house and disrobe. 25th Ave my lungs are bursting. Barely able to breathe. It is impossible to scale hill and read book aloud. Return to silent reading.
On page 60 there is a reference to the inimitable scent of childhood. I look up to see ‘Mental Health Unit’ and discover I am at the back of the Children’s Hospital. Opposite are the sounds of a children’s birthday party in progress.
Geneviève is unsure of her actions, arrives at a party, and drinks rather a lot without feeling the effects. I need the toilet, am dehydrated, alone on the pavement and unsure of my actions. The cycle path delivers me to a big shopping mall. I muddle about aimlessly in a department store while aspects of Bernstein’s novel play out around me. Two women shopping together: one, French-accented, grumbling she’s had enough, they have been there since 10 a.m. Her friend ignores her and rummages through another rail of dresses. Downstairs at a make-up counter, a Chinese woman is putting heavy glam maquillage on her friend, who is entering a cha-cha-cha dance competition.
Off the page the women are in control. On the page they are tethered to the tedious Gilles: Gilles will tell Geneviève and Carole that it’s time to go away for a while... Gilles will put an end to her torment.
On the page people are drinking beer and shagging or thinking about it. I am lost in a car park. I am soon lost in the book too, having reread the most annoying line on page 62 three times. It begins: Carole was tipped back in the bed.
The next time I look up, from Gilles, Carole and their Gauloises in a café opposite the Saint Medard Church, I am opposite St Mattias Church but unlike in Berinstein’s Paris here there are no troubadors. The cycle path has disappeared. A young fella is approaching, who may offer directions. He doesn’t. But we walk together, east to Cambie Street, and discuss the perils of teenage sons playing too many video games. ‘Take him off, make him do volunteer work,’ he suggests. I ask if his parents are religious. They are. Am I turning into Gilles?
I regret the detour to the shopping mall, except for the toilet. I regret the confusion in the car park. But I have covered some serious ground. The only problem is I've read only about twelve pages of the book.
A serious uptick, trotting South on Cambie. I can't believe how far I've walked and now am reading like a hoover. Bernstein makes sense, apart from Béatrice (and later on Hélène). But there's another problem. My right hip hurts. Four blocks later, ibuprofen and coffee. I spill the pills all over the street. Ahead a cop car has pulled over two young fellas.
On, down, down, I am nearly there as South West Marine Drive looms. Except I don’t recall exactly where the road leading to the dump is. There is no one carrying a decayed futon on their head who might show me the way and nobody I ask knows. I stand against a low wall and read and wonder what to do. But I’m at a bus stop or taxi queue. I am in the way. I am not walking and reading. Just in the way. I carry on.
A man carrying a flowerpot eventually confirms I am almost at the dump. Then I smell it. It’s closed. Two men are pottering about. It’s impossible to read because of the smell. Round the corner, a man is digging muck into a large bucket on a digger. Someone is shouting. ‘I think someone is trying to get your attention,’ the man with the shovel says. I am walking and reading, he is shovelling soil by hand into the bucket of a massive machine designed to shovel soil. I cross the street to where the voice is coming from and make my presence felt by shouting back. Everything goes very, very quiet.
The walk will have lasted five and a half hours. I will have reached page 113, catching the SkyTrain home.